Adrian Hamilton: We don't have to live with a mendacious mayor

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The Independent Online

Yes, yes. I know everyone is getting tired of the London mayoral election,. Outside of the city most people couldn't care less. Even within London there's a mood of weariness with a campaign that seems to have been based entirely on personality preferences.

When Ken Livingstone was first elected eight years ago, a personality was just what Londoners wanted against the disenchantment with national politics and the almost total disinterest, and ignorance of ministers in the true state of the city in which they worked.

Today, I'm not so certain. As the economy slows, people's own finances become more restricted and the City of London contracts, is it a face that London wants or needs, or is it someone who can actually manage the next period of the competing strains of austerity versus the expansionist pressures of holding the Olympic games in 2012?

Just a week ago, Ken Livingstone made an extraordinary statement on this score. "I didn't bid for the Olympics," he boasted on the hustings, "because I wanted three weeks of sport. I bid for the Olympics because it's the only way to get the billions of pounds out of the Government to develop the East End."

It's not what he said when we won the games and he declared that they would set the cap on the world's most vibrant city. It was certainly not what he said when he told (not asked) Londoners to pay extra on their rates to support this prestigious event. Perhaps if he'd said that he wanted taxpayers to fork out some £10bn on the Olympics so he could have £1bn to spend on his own pet projects in the East End they wouldn't have been so pleased. Which is presumably why he didn't.

"So what," seemed the general reaction, or lack of it. "That's Ken for you. And at least he's got some money for redevelopment." Well I'm all for expenditure on the East End, although whether it is more needed in the east, west, north or south is another question. But is deliberate deceit the only way to get it and is it right deliberately to mislead the public, the athletes and the ratepayer, never mind the Government?

Many of us had thought – well, hoped – that we would get rid of this kind of easy way with the truth in public life when Tony Blair left office. Apparently not – not in London at least. And if Livingstone is prepared to deceive on this, what else is he prepared to lie about? When he promised to keep the congestion charge at £5 only to raise it to £8, did he always intend to increase it but thought it better not to mention it? ......... 

It's not just a question of regarding truth and straightforwardness as virtues that can be safely ignored in politics – indeed, congratulating yourself on how clever you are in getting away with it. It's about an issue that really does go the heart of local government and its failures in this country – the question of how you spend money and account for it. When you raise money for a set project, you have to justify it. When you tag on expenditure in a wider scheme, then the purposes and the direction get totally distorted.

London has been through all this before, with Michael Heseltine and his dream of a Thames Gateway. Over £1bn was spent on the Millenium Dome, and the transport and soil clearance that went with it. The High Speed rail link was diverted to St Pancras instead of Waterloo at the cost of half as much again. Exactly the same will happen with the Olympics. Billions will be spent and wasted which would be far more productive if Ken had come clean at the beginning and said "we don't want the games, we want £3bn (or whatever) spent on London regeneration and this is the way and where I want to spend it".

All right then, comes the answer, so Ken is a dissembler and a spendthrift, but what's the alternative? But that's the wrong question. Democracy has never been very good at picking leaders. Neither of the great prime ministers of the last century – Winston Churchill or Lloyd George – were elected to office. What democracy is best at is throwing out politicians when they've exceeded their sell-by date and then letting better leaders emerge over time.

The other answer is that, strip the mayor's job of its gloss and you don't need someone with a great public personality. Boris is just another Livingstone in rumpled clothing. So I'm voting for Brian Paddick. He may lack charisma but, as a resident of Brixton, I feel he immeasurably improved the atmosphere and life of the place when he headed the local police. He's honest and competent, he's not in thrall to the developers and the special-interest charlatans, he's not taken in by Sir Ian Blair and I think he has some sense of responsibility in spending other people's (our) money.

And I'd prefer that than billions going down the drain on schemes we'll have no control of and a mayor who seems to feel that mendacity is something to be boasted about.